In October 2015, thousands of Uber employees took a seat at the Axis Theater in Las Vegas & Planet 39, where they were introduced to "Professor Kalanick" —Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, wearing a white lab coat and thick black glasses and standing in front of a rickety school blackboard on wheels. Employees were in Vegas for Uber's "X to the x" retreat, celebrating the fact that the seemingly unstoppable ride-hailing juggernaut had hit $ 10 billion in revenue. (At that time, Uber was bleeding more than $ 2 billion a year on campaigns for drivers and riders to support the juggernaut.)
The trip was pretty much a good time. Between the surprise Beyonce concert, open bars, prepaid Visa cards and hotel rooms, Uber spent more than $ 25 million in cash on a week's party, more than double the company's Series A funding round. But back on Planet Hollywood, the professor wanted to get serious.
Kalanick was obsessed with Amazon, idolized Jeff Bezos and had carefully studied the tech giant's 14 core principles, such as Customer Obsession, Bias for Action and Think Big. Kalanick stood on the stage presenting his flock, many of whom had spent the day drinking beer in pools by pools, using 14 of their own core principles. The house lights shone down on a green board to reveal what Kalanick called "Uber's Values": Always Be Hustlin, Champions Mindset / Winning, and, of course, Super Pumped.
"The list looks like Amazon's corporate values run through a bridge-speak translation engine," writes journalist Mike Isaac in Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber . The book, out this week, traces Kalanick's path from flowing startup founders to the envy of Silicon Valley to the epitome of technical malice, and with him a decade of superfluous and self-confusing. Isaac's carefully reported story still finds new jaw openings, such as a Thailand leader pushing the face of a female employee in a pile of cocaine or Kalanick writhing on the floor of a meeting room at Le Meridien Hotel in downtown San Francisco after Bloomberg published a leaked video of the CEO berating a driver.
Kalanick was ejected from Uber in 2017, following a series of scandals surrounding sexual harassment, surveillance by government officials and privacy violations. Still, Super Pumped is an essential read, acting in a way like a reverse translation engine – techspeak to plainspeak – to decode the industry's staggering rise over the last decade, to points where decisions were made by A roomy men on Market Street now have the power to change the face of a city or dictate the salaries and tips (or lack thereof) of millions of drivers.
During Uber's rise, portraits of Kalanick or Uber dutiful parrot the company's rhetoric around strengthening entrepreneurship for drivers, to link "bites and atoms." But by this time, Uber's growth tactics had come to an end and released Isaac to focus on impact, rather than rhetoric or emotional intent. And less the hype around self-driving cars and efficient algorithms, Uber looks less like a thoroughbred, technical unicorn and more like a Wall Street boiler room Ponzi scheme.
By breaking down the actual mechanics of "regulatory arbitrage" or "strike teams," the book suggests that Uber's business model was based on a simple, brutal calculation: raise money, spend like crazy on incentives, drop prices for drivers or increase prices, repeat. The formula did not work without utilizing drivers, a demographic Kalanick refers to internally, notes Isaac, as "supply."
But Super Pumped avoids the easy alternative to scouring Kalanick. Many have pointed out that Uber's rule violation was made possible by the culture of basic worship. Isaac pushes the argument forward, charting Kalanick's behavior at the core of the anti-government, pro-hustle tech doctrine, suggesting that Kalanick was radicalized by Silicon Valley's core beliefs. Isaac's portrayal of Kalanick, who was not interviewed for the book, makes it clear that while the man was uniquely led to seek total domination and humble his enemies as "a master training a dog," as one source told him, he had "absorbed" Silicon Valley maximizes "that growth is good and founders should worship before Uber even launched.